With the federal government’s shutdown nearing its second week, Democrats dared House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to prove his claims that he didn’t have the votes on a continuing resolution to re-open the government or raise the debt limit without concessions from President Barack Obama.
As lawmakers returned to work in Washington, the Republican speaker’s assertions took center stage.
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“There are not the votes in the House to pass a clean CR,” Boehner said in an interview on ABC Sunday, despite informal whip counts collected by NBC News and other outlets suggesting that as many as 21 House Republicans could join with Democrats to pass a simple extension of spending that would reopen the federal government.
But the funding fight appears poised to bleed into the Oct. 17 deadline by which lawmakers must authorize more borrowing to finance existing spending, or risk defaulting on the national debt.
"We're not going to pass a clean debt-limit increase," Boehner said of that deadline. "I told the president, there's no way we're going to pass one. The votes are not in the House to pass a clean debt limit. And the president is risking default by not having a conversation with us."
In short, Republicans in Congress appeared no closer to resolving their fiscal differences with Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress. But wrapping the debt ceiling into the impasse only raises the stakes for the impasse’s outcome.
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Democrats – who have demanded a clean extension of both government spending and the debt limit – have demanded that Boehner move to approve those measures as a precondition of broader negotiations over government spending.
And so the second week of the shutdown essentially opened with Democrats calling Boehner’s bluff.
“If there are not votes to open the government as Speaker Boehner says, why is he so afraid to call the vote and prove it?” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer asked Monday morning on Twitter.
The president himself, though, was scheduled to stay out of the public eye after waging a PR blitz against Republicans for much of last week.
But as the shutdown appeared ready to extend into its second week – and perhaps longer – it was clear that something would have to give in the next 10 days, or risk a severe blow to seriously harm an already-shaky American financial system, and threated to plunge the United States back into recession. Republican leaders suggested that another weekend of work could be in the cards, especially as the debt ceiling deadline neared.
The first seven days of the shutdown were more full of political posturing and blame-placing than sincere negotiations to restart the government.
Thousands of government programs remain on hold, and most services have been reduced to bare-boned staff. National parks are shuttered, and hundreds of thousands of government workers have been ordered to stay home.
One bipartisan breakthrough came over the weekend after the White House and Senate Democrats agreed to legislation from the House GOP guaranteeing back pay for furloughed federal workers.
That bill, though, was only one of the handful of limited spending bills proposed by Republicans to reinstate funding for some of the most visible consequences of the shutdown, like children's cancer research on hold or the officially-closed World War II memorial.
Democrats have argued for days that the surest way to ensure all of those programs would be for the House to finally vote to approve the simple, six-week extension of government spending favored by Obama and his Democratic allies.
And though there are emerging signs of bipartisan support for such a measure, Republicans' insistence on passing a series of messaging-oriented bills suggested that the GOP was locked into its position for the long haul.
Most prognosticators agree that one side will eventually blink, and not allow the U.S. to default. But Boehner and Obama have each built such immense political stakes into this standoff's outcome that at least one of them will suffer greatly from the eventual resolution.
How that resolution might play out appeared to even bewilder Boehner, who responded when asked when the shutdown fight would conclude: “If I knew, I would tell you.”